It still amazes me that after thirty years of being butchered from studio interference and having been ignored during its original theatrical run, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner still feels refreshing as if it were something that had only recently came out. Like the best science fiction films it isn’t one whose wonder lies within the excitement created by its distinctive visual style but how it presents itself – not as a showcase for hypnotic set pieces but as a meditation on life, pushing towards what we are afraid to ask. Even today the genre subversions still feel present and on rewatches I only find myself appreciating it all the more, after having already been left fascinated with a first watch. But it wasn’t until more revisits mere fascination grew into adoration, and soon the resonant effect of Blade Runner only made itself clear.
The film opens with a shot of Los Angeles from a distance in the year 2019. After weaving through the city, we get a glimpse of a human eye, where the colours and the fire-spewing towers are reflected, soon we are brought inside a building where a test is being performed distinguishing humans from replicants, androids virtually identical to humans who are built for the purpose of slave labor on off-world colonies. Soon we are introduced to our protagonist, Rick Deckard, an LAPD blade runner who is assigned to retire replicants who run loose. He is assigned to track down a group led by Roy Batty, who seek their creator as a means of expanding their lifespan. Reading a synopsis would only make Blade Runner appear simple, but it lays out only one template of where the film’s brilliance lies.
Coming down to the essentials of noir storytelling, all of the archetypes are present whether it be the hardboiled if sleazy detective, the femme fatale, or the distinctive urban setting – Ridley Scott is only deceiving the viewers to become a part of what would grow to become a greater mystery. Characters are distinctively written in broad types, yet they still feel immensely purposeful for getting the film’s message across. If anything had ever made it clearer, Harrison Ford’s performance as Rick Deckard, contrasting his familiar character as made from blockbusters like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, seems distinctly out of touch with the world around him but his role is vital towards digging at the film’s core.
For all that people can make of Rick Deckard and his noticeable lack of interest within the job he is assigned to go forth with, he is also the perfect mirror for the film’s antagonistic force in Roy Batty. Deckard’s role in Blade Runneris that of an observer, unsure of his own position within life or his own purpose – similar to that of a replicant. Neither character are flawless in their own morality but Scott never seems to have much interest in painting sides as “good” or “bad.” For as Rick Deckard is the film’s protagonist he is still in some sense a sleazy figure, but the notion that he’s a caricature doing what his “purpose” as a blade runner insists he does makes for a compelling case study, for his own lack of motivation towards what he does for a living can only signify a sense of rebellion only seeking to break out. Yet all he is reduced to is one who observes destruction taking place around him, given what his purpose broke him down to.
Sean Young’s Rachael is introduced to us as a new form of replicant, within the femme fatale archetype once again pertaining to the film’s noir influence. Rachael is a new sort of replicant deisgned by Tyrell in order to carry memories akin to that of a human, thus leaving her to believe that she is one. What Ridley Scott has created from this archetype is a clear test for Deckard, because in a structured noir we can normally recognize Rachael as a love interest. Yet her role ultimately proves itself one of the greatest tests for both Deckard and the audience, because of a distinct identity that they both are missing. We know she’s a replicant, but she strikes a sense of empathy towards Deckard in order to blur perceptions that can be made of whether or not Deckard’s purpose is for the greater good or not. You never root for Deckard because you know he is only an observer, but in this moment it makes clear the limits that Scott wishes to test about the morality of humans put next to that of a replicant. There’s a damaged figure left behind in the caricature Deckard embodies, and Rachael is there to reach for it psychologically – thus giving significance to her role.
Ridley Scott is putting the test to how we recognize humanity, in an extremely complicated way, but the psychology and philosophy of Blade Runner ultimately is where the film has achieved its success. You can see everywhere that replicants are the majority of the film’s characters, and yet the fact that they still build up the film’s humanistic core is where another level of the film’s brilliance only begins to shine. It is especially brilliant because in a typical sense, it can be easy to paint broad strokes as humans being good and replicants being bad – yet Scott strives to go as far away from that mentality as possible. In its replicant characters you still see humanity because of how they are built to be, and the purpose of why they are around. And the very most that we see on the surface is only limited to a neo-noir set within a dystopia, but on that count it also plays out like a deconstruction of archetype – laying out its brilliance all the more.
Our antagonist is Roy Batty, one of the four rogue replicants who is seeking to extend their lifespan and also the root of where Blade Runner‘s heart and soul lies within. Being a replicant, he is highly skilled, intelligent, combative and he is still learning to develop his own emotions. He is where the heart of Blade Runner has always lied, not within Deckard, not within Rachael – but in Roy Batty, a figure who has yet to find the purpose of his own life. All we know about him is that he is a replicant seeking to expand his lifespan, even in the most ruthless manners possible – but because he is so mysterious, he ultimately leaves behind the most moving moments of the film. Inside of a replicant, you see humanity on a regular basis, looking for a purpose and within Deckard, you see a pessimistic outlook on life, beaten down because of purpose. Putting the two odds at ends with one another, we notice that the two aren’t so much different. The Replicants were posing a lesson for Deckard, highlighting the greatest irony – a film feeling so human yet its characters are robotic in a broad sense.
The imagery that forms Blade Runner still appear so stunning, like weaving through a lucid nightmare regarding the fate of humankind. But as Scott moves through these backgrounds rather slowly, it only allows oneself to be immersed within the worldbuilding that Scott has always been extremely skilled at. Set together with a beautiful score composed by Vangelis, the environments could not be any more inviting than they already are – but at the same time its the fact everything appears in front of our own faces with many questions to be asked about this future world that ultimately reinforces what Blade Runner asks us about humanity, morality, and our purpose. Everything could not be any more clear cut from this established atmosphere, and perhaps it will not prove itself as wholly inviting for every moviegoer it still leaves a mark inside the head that leaves oneself to reflect.
Everything ends with a familiar question about the purpose of its own characters, with a noted remark about what is set for humanity in its future. But considering what this whole environment has grown to become, as a result of what we see in our own purpose in life. To what extent does purpose define our character, and what happens if we know exactly what it is, to the point that we conform so heavily? There’s no limit to the possibilities of what a search for meaning can leave behind on a human’s psychology, but Ridley Scott is never afraid to go further down with what Blade Runner is testing from his own audiences. The film never ends with a clear answer, but like Deckard’s own trials, everything was a test – because there are only so many directions humanity can take themselves, it is purely their decision that decides whether their fate will be led down a good path or not.
But maybe that’s what our whole lives have been this whole time, just a test to see whether or not we truly are out for the better. And we are shielding ourselves the whole time, we can only unleash upon realization. And maybe Blade Runner is where that sense of provocation comes out, because of how it builds morality inside of the gloomy portrait of Los Angeles that we are shown. And as we are taken in with the new world that Blade Runner has invented, our deepest fears have been unleashed. As humans, a natural fear that we carry is one of death. There is no certainty to where humanity is set to go forth, even to the point that humans don’t become humans anymore, but the caricatures we see them in here as. And the manner to how everything adds up in Blade Runner is one that I feel has ultimately left behind one of the best science fiction films ever made. It’s something that still reigns atop all other dystopian films that try their best to live up to what Blade Runner has achieved, but then again what does?
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Warner Bros.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by Hampton Fancher, David Peoples, from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Produced by Michael Deeley
Starring Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, Joe Turkel, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, William Sandersen
Release Year: 1982
Running Time: 117 minutes